Nelle Mills reflects on Ruth Owens’ current show at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery and the racialized history of photography.
The first time my family went to a Sears Portrait Studio, we ran over our appointment time by nearly an hour. The photographer, after perfectly posing us, disappeared under a black sheet behind the camera, clicked his tongue, and popped his head back out. This would continue, until finally, from behind the curtain I heard him say, “good enough.” When we received our photographs a week later, my father’s face was barely visible against the background, while my sisters and I looked ashy and washed out, even though we had been sure to moisturize before the shoot. Only our mother, with her pale white skin and brown eyes, showed up without imperfection on the film. That was the beginning of the realization that no matter how expert I was in catching the light, how big and beautiful my smile, film—like everything else in this world—was created for white people.
Walking into Ruth Owens’ “Identity Theft” at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery feels instantly familiar, like seeing a photo of a lover as a child or your grandmother in her 20s, grinning in a bikini on the beach. While the show is comprised primarily of oil and casein paintings, a video entitled Spring, 2017, plays on loop as a sort of artist statement, sharing the source of these works. A loose-curled, light-skinned black girl’s profile fills the white screen. Two-stepping to a simple beat, she belts out a call-and-response spiritual whose audio continues while clips from granular vintage home movies of the artist’s family play. A white woman is hanging clothes on the line until a black child crawls to her feet, arms outstretched, waiting for their mother to scoop them up and smother them in kisses. A birthday party, children playing on a wine-colored floatie at the beach, a line of majorettes marching in a parade. It’s difficult to distinguish the black children from the background and from one another, leaving the white woman as the star due to her visibility. The video ends quietly.
Thanks to Shirley Page, a Kodak employee, white skin, dark hair, and bright clothes became the standard for film photography. In the 1950s, Page served as model for what would eventually be called “Shirley cards,” photographs that set a norm for color balance during the photo printing process. Because of this, black and brown skin became extremely difficult to render, especially when photographed alongside their lighter skin and white counterparts. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when, ironically enough, furniture and chocolate makers wanting to better capture the dark colors of their products created the demand for more diverse Shirley cards.
Stepping into Owens’ show is like holding the video’s original Super 8 negatives to the light, and asking viewers to consider what it means to see one’s family and oneself through this inherently racist lens. As if spliced from the reel and enlarged, Owens paints key scenes from the home movies that, according to the gallery’s website, are “rooted in pivotal memor[ies] from childhood.” For Owens, each painting “represents a psychologically intense moment of personal influence, set in a culture of racial divide.”
Nearly a decade before Loving v. Virginia legalized interracial marriage in the United States, Owens was born in 1959 to an African-American man and a German woman. Then, as well as now, to be biracial was to live in a constant state of otherness and examination. Owens’ choice to translate the distortions, imperfections, and graininess of home movies into her paintings reflects the particular framework in which biracial children oftentimes construct their own identity, through a lens. Most importantly, this lens, unable to see all of their complexities, always fails. Of the works in the show, three of Owens’ oil paintings stand out as if saying, to be captured on film is to be seen by white people, which is to not be seen at all.
In That Beauty Queen, 2018, three distorted feminine figures—one white and two black—sit perched on what looks like a white convertible. The blond white woman sits in the foreground, gloved hands folded shyly into her matching white dress. Out of focus and nearly camouflaged into the background are the two black figures. While the white woman’s face is blank, lips shut, we know she is the beauty queen. We know she is beautiful because we’re told she is. We know she is beautiful because she is seen.
In Wally and her Husband, 2018, a white woman sporting a short blond bob, presumably Wally, faces the camera. She is throwing her head back, mouth open, hand up as if pushing away a hilariously absurd thought. Cloaked in a beige and white jacket, she is all tans, pinks, and whites. And then, resting on her right shoulder, a black man’s face emerges from the dark background rocking a colorful kofia. Her husband smiles, teeth showing. Maybe he photobombed his wife, jumping into the frame at the last minute, causing her to throw her head back and laugh at his hilariousness. In that moment, Wally gives her husband permission to be visible. The smallest oil painting, How?, 2017, shows a young black girl, wearing a matching swimsuit and cap. Her eyes are blacked out, impossible to discern under the heavy paint. Her arms are open; she is smiling—happy as if she doesn’t know she has no eyes.
Seeing that family photo from Sears back in 1995 was my first time seeing a picture of my whole family together. After that, I often wondered what people thought of us, what to make of this white blond with four half-black children. People would stare, ask questions, reach for my hair like the last dress on the sale rack, and ask what I was. And it was through that lens that I began constructing my own identity; I had no examples who looked like me. Black and mixed-race children learn early that their own identity is never theirs to begin with. They don’t have the luxury of discovering themselves or coming of age in the same way white children do. Before puberty, they have already been photographed, dissected, categorized, and told who they are by others. Owens asks us as viewers to consider where we stand: Are we the victim, the thief, or both?
Ruth Owens’ “Identity Theft” is on view through August 25, 2018, at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery (400A Julia Street) in New Orleans.